The purpose of this research is to describe, compare and contrast two operas of Giuseppe verdi, one from the middle period (Rigoletto, La Traviata, Il Trovatore), with one from the late period (Otello, Falstaff), musically and dramatically, as well as contextually. The two will be Traviata, because it is his most popular (Aida notwithstanding), and Falstaff, because it is his masterpiece, and the final opera of his career.
This will be attempted by cursorily placing Verdi, both young and old, in his historical context, then by describing and comparing the first act of each of the operas. The first act was chosen because second acts need not be as strong, and third acts are concerned with denouement. There is not sufficient space here to even approach a full explanation of these magnificent works of art; it will be assumed that the reader is somewhat familiar with the two operas.
Despite amazing differences in Verdi’s style of composition from the beginning of his career (with his first real success Nabucco) to the end, the proces of continuous comprehensive development is quite marked. Verdi’s unifying concern was writing opera in the sense that opera is a marriage of symphonic music and dramatic poetry. This is distinguished from plays with incidental music (which is why Elmer Bernstein’s film scores are no more, or less, operatic than Beethoven’s music for Egmont) on one end. On the other is dramatic set pieces with great music but little theatrical content (the Messiah of Handel is a great oratorio, but the theater of the music is implied in our knowledge of scripture, not contained in the work itself.) The successors of Handel are the musical comedy writers (even the ones who wrote tragedies).
But the opera derives its meaning from a marriage of the two. Probably the first genuine example of this is in Mozart. To paraphrase Tovey, the success of the opera was based on its drama, but its immortality on its music. Given this definition, historical continuity can be established in a direct line from Mozart to Verdi and Wagner.
Verdi’s career began at a time when Italian opera was dominated by the bel-canto tradition, in which, the singer was considered the central element. The soprano (or, a bit earlier, the castrato), after the inevitable four-bar introduction, would stop the recitativo action of the narrative, step forward thus announced and sing, using all her coloratura, a tuneful set piece which showed off her virtuosity using rigidly standardized vocal conventions which were generally composed for (if not totally controlled by) that purpose, generally with little or no contextual significance. She would often be recalled for an encore leaving the stage and returning for ovation after ovation while the other principals stood woodenly around waiting for the resumption of the drama, like a game of “Statutes.” The music composed for her solo may have fallen anywhere in a range of emotions or of beauty. (Certainly, both Bellini and Donizetti wrote lovely arioso passages.) Yet, in the same way that the spoken drama in the modern musical is artificially and jarringly interrupted by the set-piece song (ask any child who has just seen “South Pacific”), the bel-canto conventions were anti-dramatic.
There were important contributions made in attempting to alter the situation of the parallel drama and music, to interrupt the tradition of interrupting the action: Rossini emphasized the declamatory nature of the aria and recitative both and symphonized the opera orchestra; Donizetto dramatized and tragedized the libretto; Bellini left a legacy of beautiful melody, as distinct from beautiful embellishments; but it was Verdi who slowly, over a long career, “operatized” the form. As Ralph Vaughan Williams put it:
Verdi wrote operas. He did not add music to plays
full of superficial philosophy or bogus psychology
. . . it is the voice on which he counts to elucidate
La Traviata was first produced in 1853, supposedly a disaster because of the singers, and is the middle opera of a period of three compositions in three years. Prior to Rigoletto, the first of the three, Verdi’s canvas had been epic, but now he changed his focus. The wailing gypsy crying after her hanged son in Trovatore, the hunchback in Rigoletto, and the dying courtesan in Traviata all represented a concern with the psychology of the unheroic individual that was new to Verdi and to Italian opera, and that would culminate in the character of Sir John Falstaff forty years later.
The autobiographical significance of La Traviata is as great as you wish to make it. Verdi was living with Peppina out of wedlock, much as Alfredo and Violetta were in Act II. Verdi’s mistress was regarded as a lady of easy virtue because of this, and Verdi was advised by numerous “Germonts,” of both sexes, to sever the relationship. Only one man had the impact that the character has in the opera, and that was Barezzi who was Verdi’s dead wife’s father.
”Who knows whether she is or is not my wife?” Verdi asked in a letter. “Who knows whether this is good or bad?” It was a question that could as well have been asked about Violetta in the opera (and was frequently asked about Marie Duplessis, the courtesan on whom all this was based). La Traviata certainly is, at some level, influenced by Verdi’s reaction to the automatic condemnation of his relationship, and is a plea for understanding the suffering of a human being.
This is, in fact, the major point of comparison between the two operas: both are musical/dramatic expositions of the character of essentially one person, whatever qualities or vices that person may have.
In Traviata, Germont and Alfredo are definitely not comprimario roles, yet the thread of the drama is just as definitely Violetta’s psychology, and is to her that the title refers therefore; in Falstaff, the aging knight is the central character, to whom all effects and drama relate, the Merry Wives being largely more instrumental and psychological definers and catalysts for Sir John.
As to the structure of the first act of La Traviata; unlike the form of the later opera, Traviata’s first act is divided into “numbers” (separate identifiable parts, at the end of which the audience may applaud, as mentioned earlier):
1) Preludio ed Introduzione
3) Valzer e Duetto
4) Stretta dell’introduzione
5) Scene ed Aria
but this is deceptive as we shall see.
The Preludio is simple indeed: one flute, one oboe, one clarinet, two bassoons, three horns (increased to four for four notes), and strings, sixteen violins divided into two groups of eight. This chamber orchestra plays a forty-nine bar Adagio, with two themes, one being repeated once. The “soli divisi” (reminding many of the same division in the Prelude to Lohengrin), play first the mood-setting passage, tense and melancholy, then two themes, once played first in the violins, then repeated in the woodwinds to the accompaniment of the second theme in the violins.
This is the initial statement of the contrasting elements in Violetta’s character: her consumptive death and the gaiety of her life; between Alfredo’s serious love for her and her coquettishness, based on her feelings of unworthiness which are translated into a desperate freedom; between the orchestra and the coloratura.
The curtain rises on Violetta’s party, an Allegro brillantissimo a vivace (about as frenetically lively as you can get), which forms the musical backdrop from which Violetta emerges as hostess, greeting her late guests as they arrive, one of whom is Alfredo. This is not merely the one against the many: the party itself is divided into groups chiding each other.
The initial party theme returns as Violetta and her guests sit at the table (Example 4); she asks Alfredo to propose a toast. Here the formal Brindisi is indeed a formal dramatic situation: the stiffness of the newcomer proposing a toast, and so, the set-piece is here appropriate (Example 5).
In Violetta’s reply, we find an example of Verdi’s musical dramaturgy: Alfredo’s “Libiemo” is in B flat, and when she attempts to respond, her other guests interrupt her by singing the first part of the theme in E flat and she manages to finish in B flat. The musical unison of the future lovers is thus contrasted against the buffoonery of the party goers, and the two sing against the staccato of the others.
Generally, the conventions of the Italian opera at the time demanded a large formal duet (four sections, generally, tempo d’attacco, the main adagio, andante or larghetto, the tempo di mezzo, ending in the caballetta). In the duet in the first act of La Traviata, which is muted and not really realized until the last act, the first and third sections are bound together by the same waltzes. Here Verdi indicates, by the alteration of this convention, that the love between them, as represented by the duet, is not yet working; this sets the stage for the drama and interior revelation of Violetta’s conflicts in the cavatina-cabaletta.
From off-stage (or, rather, on-stage in the next room) comes the skittish little waltz (in 3/8), played by a small band (“banda interna” in the score – apparently Verdi wanted a small band separate from the orchestra on stage). The band continues playing during the entire sequence where Violetta’s illness causes her to stumble; the play within the play, the band within the orchestra. This is an extremely realistic touch, and suggests that the gaiety occurs separately and uncaringly from Violetta’s real state (consumption) and will continue after she is gone.
The band continues as loud background until Alfredo’s beautiful Andantino “Un di felice. . .” (Example 6), introducing a melody (“di quell’amor . . .”) used again for dramatic purposes later, and Violetta responds with a magnificent coloratura solo. Here the bel-canto tradition is used dramatically, i.e., Violetta’s “brillante” affects (staccato alternating with volate) are what make the desperate flippancy of her attempt to escape from Alfredo’s love so impressive; the contrast is still present in the parting duet.
After Alfredo leaves, and the guests return “in tumulto,” Violetta is left alone, sat dawn, on the stage. (The guests leaving is the fourth set piece of the act.) Her isolation from love, her loneliness in the midst of the gaudy crowd of her demi-mondaine friends, her solo: dramatic equivalents.
In what follows, a series of continuing emotional alterations mirrored and echoed musically and dramatically, Verdi’s genius is clear: here are a few.
”Ah, fors e lui” is an Andantino sung dolcissimo. The words “colinga ne’ tumulti” (Example 7) are sung thusly: “solinga” martellate, hammering out the loneliness in each syllable, the “tumulti” breaks the effect with a small appoggiatura which hints at the swirl of the crowd. When Violetta echoes Alfredo’s “a quell emor,” the clarinet accompanies her, giving a small reminder of her coloratura sarcasm in the duet (Example 8). However, in the Allegro “Follie!” she remembers herself, telling herself, after a long “thinking” pause (resta concentrada), that it is all nonsense (Example 9).
Next, we hear the phrase “Povera donna,” which is echoed forty years later in Falstaff, by Mrs. Quickly (Example 10). She asks what she should do, should she surrender to the whirlpool of pleasure, the “vortici.” This word is split into another coloratura passage, which suggests musically the meaning of the word, (Example 11), and, again, with the word “gioir” (pleasure), another such outburst, this time almost angry. This leads into the “Sempre libera,” which is the statement of her denial, to (textually) remain free, and to (psychologically) remain bound to the shallow life; musically, she sings allegro brillante, moving into the caballetta, which indicates the hasty desperation of the decision.
But, when she sings another coloratura protestation of freedom, “volar” (fly), she is interrupted by Alfredo’s distant “Amor” accompanied by harp (Example 12). She responds favorable only for a moment (and a delicious moment it is), then returns to the “Follie!” and the duet is completed, but Alfredo is now unable to interrupt the brilliant arpeggio flights. The orchestral accompaniment now includes the instruments specifically excluded in the long solo passages, and we realize that Verdi, in returning to almost recitativo secco forms, has permitted the emergence of a more comprehensive portrait of Violetta’s soul; in Falstaff, he will go even further back to “antiquated” polyphonic forms to describe his major character.
Although we have looked only at the first act (and that only superficially), the remainder of the opera involves even more alterations for the character of Violetta; in addition to the technical bravura required heretofore, the second and third require not only lyrical sweetness (as her love flows), but great dramatic power in the scene with Germont and, especially, in the last act death scene. So, we see a woman revealed as gay, vacillating, escapist, sexy, frightened, lonely, coquettish, witty, tender, both moral and immoral, courageous, vengeful, and physically generating.
Falstaff was the last of Verdi’s operas and his first successful comedy. In the same way that La Traviata is a chamber music portrait of a dying woman falling in love, Falstaff is a grandiose study of an old man not falling in love. Both are essentially tragic, although much lightness exists in Falstaff. “How sad is your comedy,” Eleanora Duse wrote to Boito. Both deceive themselves about their essential states, and this is tragic.
The autobiographical significance of Falstaff is even more significant than that of Traviata. The old man, now lionized as the great composer, who had refused to attend his own “jubilee celebration” four years earlier, surprised everybody. Otello could easily have been his final work, and would have been consistent with his career: a final great tragic opera by the master of the form. But the maestro, like “pancione” (big-belly) himself, tricked them, rejuvenated by the creation of a comedy into a final statement on the comedy of the world, an embodiment of the humor of one old man writing about the vanities and fraudulence of another. As Boito suggested to him in a letter, “After having expressed the tears and lamentations of the human heart, to finish with an immense explosion of hilarity. That would be really amazing!”
The opera took him three years to compose. He had composed Trovatore, Rigoletto and Traviata in three years. It was immediately recognized as a masterpiece, yet is rarely performed today, as opposed to Traviata which was a failure in its first two performances, yet is extremely popular and frequently performed today.
Falstaff is a completely orchestral opera, insofar as the involvement of the orchestra is concerned, yet is also a singer’s opera, since the dramatic meaning of the words takes precedence over the repetition of beautiful melodies. The quality of melody in Falstaff is different; they consist of melodic phrases rather than formally constructed arias and recitative. Even La Traviata is formal by comparison. Yet, of such melodic phrases, there is a myriad. As Charles Osborne puts it, “Verdi scatters tunes about as though he were trying to give them away.”
This melodic freedom (which some might refer to as freedom from melody) is probably the single greatest reason that the opera is not more popular than it is; it also makes quotations for the purpose of this research more difficult.
For the opening of the opera, Verdi dispenses with an overture (or even a small Prelude like that of Traviata), and plunges us at once into three bars of Allegro vivace action, using ff chords in the first of many quickly discarded musical ideas (Example 13).
Dr. Caius immediately accuses Falstaff of breaking into his house and beating his servants. Falstaff is unconcerned, even lazy in response, which leads Caius into a heightened anger: he describes Falstaff as “ampio” and “Sir Mountain,” the first of a series that runs throughout the opera of multi-level jokes confusing Falstaff’s fatness and his nobility. The orchestra describes his mountainous girth with descending sforzando scales and ascending portimento scales, and Caius ends in even greater emphasis. The first theme in representing both Caius’ anger and Falstaff’s boisterousness encourages us to share Falstaff’s view of the world as a joke.
Falstaff now casually admits the crime he is accused of, saying “Ecco la mia riposta” (“I’ll tell you loudly”) in triple piano, then tells him, in a legato passage, that he did it proudly. Caius is completely undone by this admission. The bass fortissimo chords and dotted arpeggios keep the anger and excitement of the scene moving, and are contrasted with the playfulness of the woodwinds in Falstaff’s replies (flute for Falstaff, a piccolo for Bardolph, and a trombone overblowing the offended dignity of Pistol).
Dr. Caius resolves, after getting nowhere with the three of them, like the victim of a game of “Keepaway,” that he will, in the future, drink only with “gente onesta, sobria, civile expi” (honest, sober civil pious men) to the accompaniment of mock-heroic recitation of the first theme in the brass. This introduces an idea that is expressed multifariously throughout the opera: the honor of both sexes is conveniently donned and discarded depending on the opportunity of the moment. (Examples of this are Mrs. Quickly’s “reverenza,” accompanying a false curtsey, and Falstaff’s “onore” sequence at the end of Act One.)
Pistol gives support to the absurdity of Dr. Caius’ sudden attack of uprightness by accompanying his exit with the antiphonal “Amen” in G Major; Bardolph’s response is in A Minor, creating an unpleasantly sardonic bitonal canon, which Falstaff interrupts, telling them that not only is their counterpoint dreadful, but their thievery is graceless, in a little piu lento lecture, which they find as hypocritical as Caius. They begin the same scornful dissonance, but Falstaff hushes them.
Now Falstaff examines the bill the landlord brought him; the money is indicated in the score with sparkling little triangle passages; Falstaff’s agitated interest while reading the bill and worrying over it is taken by a restless bass line. Incongruously, Falstaff sings a charming eight bar Moderato, praising Bardolph’s nose (which Caius has previously ridiculed), then taking it back.
These flashes of tenderness towards his characters are as common with Verdi as they were with Shakespeare (e.g., Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night saying, “I was loved once thus.”); they disappear just as you want to hear more, only to reappear, barely recognizable, elsewhere.
Falstaff calls for more wine, accusing his henchmen of “threat’ning my substance.” The image of Falstaff ever becoming thin is preposterous, and is conveyed by a piccolo four octaves over ‘celli (Example 14), an excellent musical description of the real horror many obese people feel about losing “substance.”
This leads into a maestoso, grandiose segment with Falstaff, clarinets, horns, bassoons and the amazing bass trombone (not available to the earlier Verdi) marching solemnly in praise of “paunch,” the reason for his immortal glory, Bardolph and Pistol assenting: “Falstaff Immenso,” “Enorme Falstaff” (Example 15).
Falstaff now talks about starting the dual affair with two women and we move from Henry IV into the Merry Wives of Windsor proper. He asks B and P if they know Ford, the husband of Alice one of the wives; they reply with accacciatura accompaniment in the orchestra. Falstaff sings of Alice’s beauty “Sua moglie e bella;” Pistol immediately sings the same phrase a half-octave lower, giving it the words “E tien lo scrgno” (she holds the purse strings) which defines Falstaff’s motives a bit differently than the music would have us believe. Falstaff himself destroys it by mockingly singing Alice’s supposed reaction “Io son di Sir John Falstaff” falsetto, thereby confirming the opinion of Bardolph, who replies “Punto” (unquote). Falstaff goes on to confirm it further by signing about the other woman entirely differently to a staccato accompaniment, admitting that he is only interested in her money, the bravura passage falling on the word “Eldorado.” He ends in another bit of fraudulent grandiosity (with trill).
When Pistol and Bardolph refuse to take his letters, because of their “honors,” Falstaff delivers his “onore” lecture, which is Boito at his most Shakespearean. He ends with genuine Shakespeare, as he asks what honor is and answers “no” to each suggestion: each “no” is punctuated by the bassoon/clarinet and pizzicato strings. When he defines it as “c’e del’aria che vola” (a breeze that vanishes), we hear an airy fluttering of flutes and piccolo. Then, sick of the whole mess, he turns on them and drives them out with a broom, and the frenzied string and brass passage of the coda, which ends in C Major, where the work began.
Throughout the rest of the opera Sir John Falstaff’s character is defined much further (the polyphonic score setting off choirs against him, like a replacement for the secco accompaniment of earlier days). A few examples include: the great drunken shake of the orchestra when he is drinking; his self-congratulation turning into bitterness in the two “va, va” passages; his frenzy during the laundry scene; and finally the great nine-part comic fugue, ending the opera, on “tutto nel mondo e burla l’uom” (all the world’s a joke), expressing his basic point of view.
Before the letters (the major plot) are introduced, we have learned that Falstaff (and his henchmen) is a thief, a drunken opportunist, a flatterer, a pauper, a poet, a hypocrite, a fat man, capable of loyalty, humor, perspective, co-operation, self-deception, self-honesty, imperturbability, anger, sarcasm and so on; and we have learned these things without a single aria, with virtually no intact conventional forms. And, yet we know that we have heard extremely interesting, provocative, humorous, original, beautiful, great poetry and music.
The two operas represent different ages of Italian opera, and of one man. Traviata was produced when the stage was lit by gas, and the slower speed and romantic subject matter belong this earlier technology; Falstaff’s first performance was electrically lighted, and the faster tempi and more sudden glimpses and insights belong more the modern era. Yet, they are both great, and Verdi is their composer.
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Gluck’s brilliant phrasing and symphonic composition notwithstanding. ↑
Sir Donald Francis Tovey, The Forms of Music (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1961), 146. ↑
It was critically fashionable to describe post-Ernani Verdi as “Wagnerized,” but, as George Bernard Shaw said, “I now declare without reserve that there is no evidence in any bar of Aida or the two later operas that Verdi ever heard a note of Wagner’s music.” (Eric Bentley, ed., Shaw on Music (New York: Doubleday, 1955), 134. ↑
Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Opera,” in Verdi – A Symposium, Vol. 2, #3, February 1951. ↑
Among other things, the soprano who played Violetta was quite fat; it was difficult to believe that she was dying of a “wasting” disease. ↑
Donizetti’s heroines were mythically, epically tragic; Bellini’s fairly stereotyped. ↑
“Letter to Antonio Barezzi,” dated Paris, January 21, 1852, in Letters of Giuseppe Verdi, Charles Osborne, ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 183-184. ↑
Even the “verismo” school of opera, supposedly more realistic than Verdian opera, is not this realistic: Puccini interrupts the melody several times in La Boheme to musically comment on Mimi’s sickness. ↑
Supposedly Shakespeare was commissioned by Elizabeth I to write The Merry Wives of Windsor to show “Sir John in Love,” which he failed to do; Verdi compounds the crime. ↑
Vincent Sheean, Orpheus at Eighty (New York: Random House, 1958), 351. ↑
Boito quoted in Spike Hughes, Famous Verdi Operas (New York: Chilton, 1968), 479. ↑
Charles Osborne, Complete Operas of Verdi (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1970), 422. ↑
B. H. Haggin reports the following conversation with Arturo Toscanini (in Conversations with Toscanini (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), 115: “‘Did you hear Falstaff?’ he asked, his face lighting up. ‘Yes, it was very beautiful,’ I answered. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘for me is most beautiful opera.'” ↑